Hello there.

Today we’re continuing our series of discussions of more modern indie titles. They’re not traditional reviews, as such, and we go into some detail about the specifics of the story of each, and so they’re heavily flagged for spoilers.

Previously, Jo and I have talked about the FMV mystery Her Story and the 90s-themed exploration adventure Gone Home. Today’s game is The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, developed and published by The Astronauts in 2014.

As with those other games in this discussion series, you’re probably best off not knowing too much about it before you start playing. However, the basic setup is that you are Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator who responds to a letter from a young boy, Ethan Carter, by travelling to Ethan’s home in Red Valley Creek, Wisconsin. Here’s a short teaser trailer from the developers:

We weren’t quite as fond of this one as the previous games we discussed, but it still has plenty to recommend it, and it’s reasonably short and digestible, so do check it out if it looks like it might be of interest.

Otherwise, the usual ***spoiler warnings*** now apply, should you read any further.


What Remains of Ethan Hawke

Jo: So where do you want to start?

Rik: Well, I guess we normally talk about the game choice first, and it was my suggestion. But I have to admit that this was just one of the games in my GOG library that I’d vaguely heard of and knew was a walking simulator-type game. And I think short games are working well for this series.

Jo: We’ve pulled together a bit of a shortlist now. I knew almost nothing about it, other than it had popped up in ‘you might also enjoy…’ recommendations and so on.

Rik: I knew less about it going in than the others we’ve discussed. I must also admit that like an old man I’ve got this one confused with a lot of other indie games with similar names.

Jo: Oh, don’t get me started.

Rik: Dear Esther, What Remains of Edith Finch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture…I’m stapling them all together in my mind, even though they were all released several years apart.

Jo: I kept calling it What Remains of Ethan Hawke. Which is just all kinds of wrong.

Rik: It reminds me of Mum referring to that famous 90s film, While You Were Sleeping with the Enemy in Seattle. But I swear the titles are quite samey and it’s not just me being old.

Jo: I think it is us just being old…

Rik: There’s a new one, The Suicide of Rachel Foster. I’m sorry but that’s following a clear pattern.

Jo: Although I did tell someone – younger than me, I might add – that I was playing this game and they said “Oh I’ve started that… no wait, that was What Remains of Edith Finch”. So, there might be something in the long-winded name convention.

Rik: Aha! We are still Young and Hip after all.

Jo: So maybe we should mention about you playing it on PC and me deviating and playing on PS4.

Rik: Sure. I should also say that I played the original release not the Redux version, which has a few small differences.

Jo: I played the remaster…

Rik: It turns out I could have played the remastered version, but the way you access it via GOG was extremely unclear. And in the end it chugged a bit on my PC. So I was happy (ish) with the original choice.

Jo: My tech guy [Mr. Jo] informs me it was remastered in Unreal Engine 4.

Rik: Yes, I played the Unreal Engine 3 version. I think the differences are probably more relevant when we’ve discussed the game a bit more.

Jo: Yes, let’s get to it.


A Slight Sinking Feeling

Rik: Although I had an inkling it might be a bit darker than our previous discussion games, once I started playing, I think after about 5 minutes I knew this wasn’t going to be like Gone Home where it just *feels* a bit creepy, there was actually going to be creepy stuff happening. I had a slight sinking feeling when I thought, Jo must be wondering why I suggested this.

Jo: There were quite a few initial jump scares that got me – I just wasn’t expecting them, and my jumpy reaction scared my twitchy dog.

Rik: Yes, I screamed out loud a bit at those initial traps. And I didn’t quite get that a) they unveiled one of the main mechanics of the game and b) you weren’t meant to avoid them, you were meant to look for more.

Jo: No, me neither.

Rik: Because this is largely still an exploring game, where you look for things, and not one where you can come to harm (with one exception).

Red Creek Valley: kind of beautiful, kind of bleak.

Jo: I have to say, during the first part I couldn’t quite work out what type of game it was. I wasn’t expecting it to be scary, but then at the beginning, it says it’s a game that ‘doesn’t hold your hand’ and then I had my doubts.

Rik: Yes I didn’t like that particularly.

Jo: And I thought, ‘mmm okay…’

Rik: It does sort of hold your hand when it needs to. It wasn’t as bad to me as that statement implied.

Jo: I felt it sort of went from one extreme to the other. There would be lots of stuff to look at and explore one minute and then it just sort of tapered off and I was like… okay am I supposed to just go combing through all this grass now, or should I be doing something?

Rik: Well, to just go back to initial feelings, after the scares I relaxed a bit when you walk across the bridge and see the scenery.

Jo: I did fear that I would fall through the bridge. It did not look safe.

Rik: After the traps, you do wonder. But I thought, oh yes it will be exploring. Then I saw the blood-stained train, and went back to, no, it will be dark and grotty.

Jo: I felt visually, it moved from one to the other, because the scenery is quite stunning, but then there’s this quite dark stuff dotted around in it. Initially, I definitely felt it was quite creepy, then I changed my mind, and then back again.

Rik: I was thinking, well, *someone* must still live here. Then I thought, of course not, you dummy, everything about this is telling you no-one here is alive.

Jo: I wasn’t sure when it was set [1973], and didn’t really figure that out until some time later on in the game.

Rik: I thought modern, but then everything seems quite old and backward.

Jo: Yes, that’s what threw me. So that first bit with the traps it sort of shows you how to interact with things in the game, with ‘sensing’ stuff.

Rik: Yes, but I didn’t really follow it at that stage.

Jo: You don’t know much about the character you’re playing.

Rik: He speaks in a ‘psychic detective’ type way though. I sort of got that he could do special stuff.

Jo: I started out thinking we were some sort of detective, but then with the ‘sensing’ thing it made me think maybe it was a bit more er, paranormal.

Rik: It was only when I got to the first ‘case’ with the train that I realised how it all worked: the clues with words floating around them and pointing you in the vague direction of another, then ‘sensing’ where it can be found…

Jo: Railcar? Railcar? Railcar?

Rik: I did find it a bit comical. [Wife] Laura came in while I was playing and laughed out loud at one of those moments.

Jo: I did quite like it, though. I liked that you used the words to hone in on what you were looking for.

Rik: Find it, then bring it back. Then you find more clues, then the first body (again: ah yes, this is going to be horrible in places). Which you ‘sense’ and it says ‘not yet’ – which of course means, you need to find all the clues first.

Jo: I think at that point I was quite engrossed. It sort of gently nudges you in the direction you need to go to solve the puzzle.

Rik: Yes, and also you kind of understand that the clues will be nearby.

Jo: Although it did take me a while to figure out that I needed to go back and reverse the train down the track to the scene of the crime.

Rik: I worked it out but didn’t quite park it in the right bit, at first.

Jo: At this point, we [Mr. Jo was at the controls] went all FPS and launched off through the nearby fields in a totally different direction.

Rik: And there’s not much there.

Jo: I think that while all these games have a sense of open world-ness, there is a track of sorts to follow, because otherwise the story just doesn’t work.

Rik: It lets you go into the fields etc. so you don’t feel like you’re just following a path.

Jo: But then at a certain point, you hit the invisible walls.

Rik: I think I realised after the first bit that tiptoeing through the grass and bushes expecting to uncover things wouldn’t work.

Rock? Rock? Rock? Rock?

Jo: Well… at that point I found something (a grenade?) but it didn’t seem to have any relevance to anything. So, I went through all the bloody fields wondering if I might find something else (I did not). I think I find that a bit overwhelming really – the openness. In Gone Home, you can be quite thorough because you’re still confined to a room. Whereas when there’s just scenery everywhere, I just kept thinking ‘bloody hell, how much grass is there? Am I going to find something in one of these bushes perhaps?’.

Rik: I think it’s quite an empty world really, especially compared with Gone Home. There aren’t exciting revelations around every corner. And sometimes it’s just a field. For me, during the first 90 minutes, I was trudging around fairly curiously. Then I quit and realised nothing had saved, because actually I hadn’t made any progress in the game, and there’s quite a harsh auto-save checkpoint system in the original release.

Jo: Yes, you mentioned the saving issue to me before I started, and I have to say, it did seem to save fairly regularly on the remastered version.

Rik: In a way it sort of helped me, because I knew that all my fannying around meant nothing in terms of the game, and even the harshest auto-save wouldn’t be that harsh. I think I did then get my head around the fact there were cases to be solved, and thought, I should crack on with those, because they’re how you progress in the game. So I did, to the extent that I did miss some things later (quite a lot, in fact).

Jo: I think that’s what I didn’t like about it – I just wanted to get onto the story, but felt sort of obligated to go looking through all the fields in case I missed something. What did you miss?

Rik: Lots of stuff, including one whole murder. And the light thingy, which leads to the astronaut.

Jo: I think the combing through the fields that first time was the only time it actually paid off, in finding the astronaut, and I honestly thought during the cut-scene that I had unintentionally finished the game.

Rik: Like I said, I eventually realised that this wasn’t really as much of a game of looking around as it was about solving some murders. And again, I did like the way it showed you how it would work, with finding the clues, then bringing the scene to life, then putting the scenes in the right order. Although for some reason I found the first one the hardest one to work out.

Jo: Yes, I agree, it took me some time to put everything in order. For me, those parts were the best parts. I enjoyed solving the mysteries and working out how they fitted with the overarching narrative, although I often found I was barking up totally the wrong tree.

Rik: Well, again with the feelings of dread, I thought, there is no way Ethan Carter is going to be fine and well. And then that first scene sort of confirms it – not directly, but more that those feelings of dread are right.

Jo: I mean, you kind of go into it thinking ‘I don’t think Ethan’s okay’.

Rik: It’s a case of, how horrible is it going to be.

Jo: I mean, he has been tied to the railway track by his brother…

Rik: Who is talking a bit crazy. And you assume that everyone has probably gone mad, except for Ethan.

Jo: I found the astronaut thingy after that first murder (well, midway through solving it tbh), and that sort of confirmed that his brother was a complete dick.

Rik: Ah, yes that’s probably what you’re meant to do, as that provides background to the first murder. I trudged into town, looking for the next case.

Jo: I felt like, there was quite a lot of just walking through scenery to that next part. So I spent quite a lot of time being convinced that I had missed something.

Rik: I thought, sod it, I’ve probably missed some stuff, but let’s have a good wander. Which is not like me. But I was sort of forced into it by that wasted 90 minutes.

Jo: I don’t know why I feel so compelled to be so thorough.

Rik: Gone Home?

Jo: I was just thinking that.

Rik: It sort of seems like it is rewarded there, here not so much.

Jo: Because the majority of what you find (bar a few cups and ring binders) are of significance. In Ethan Carter, that isn’t the case, but I went into it with that mindset. Especially as in the intro you find newspaper clippings sort of squirrelled away behind a bit of tree or something, and the story had really piqued my interest, so I just wanted to know more, and I guess that’s why I was certain I was missing things.

Rik: Everything you can interact with is significant, but those things are dotted very lightly around a comparatively large world.


A Ghostly House and The 7th Guest

Rik: The next thing I did was the house puzzle with the ghostly rooms.

Jo: So, I thought the first burned out house was the old Vandergriff house that the Carters had occupied, but that actually led you to a second burned out house, at which point I thought… AHA! *This* is the burned out Vandergriff house! And then it turns out that neither was their house, it’s just that the few houses that are here are all burned out. Did you make that connection, or was it just me piecing all the wrong things together?

Rik: I sort of blundered into the houses hoping to find something, but didn’t make the connection. I didn’t even make the connection between the first two houses, where with the puzzle in the first it helps if you’ve been into the second.

The ghostly reconstructions are very cool.

Jo: Really?

Rik: Yep, but I did the whole puzzle from memory. And trial and error. But then it turns out the second house is laid out exactly as the ‘correct’ version of the puzzle.

Jo: I’m not a fan of puzzley bits in adventures – my brain just switches off because it’s inhibiting the story or something.

Rik: It burst my bubble slightly. I was excited about the murders! I mean, solving the murders. Then I was like, this is some 7th Guest type shit…

Jo: It’s like watching a film, and then someone tossing you a Rubik’s Cube and being like ‘you can watch the next bit when you’ve solved that’. But I don’t care about the Rubik’s Cube!

Rik: I found it ok in the end.

Jo: I sort of gave it a half-enthusiastic attempt before Mr. Jo took over.

Rik: Again, I didn’t really understand what I was meant to be doing from the clue, initially, and then I thought, ah this is some kind of maze and it’ll drive me mad.

Jo: But little did you know, the maze was yet to come!

Rik: I was trying to look out of the windows to see whether the fake room would actually be possible in terms of the layout.

Jo: Yeah, I think the windows were the only help.

Rik: I was ok with it, but also wondering how many more like it there would be later.

Jo: I also thought of The 7th Guest, by the way.

Rik: I’m not sure why I did.

Jo: I think most of the Sierra adventures were a bit ‘puzzley’ that way.

Rik: That bit just seemed very ’90s video adventure’. So I was glad to get back to solving ‘cases’, but then I found none of them quite had the same challenge as the first one. It just all seemed to fall into place quite easily. With the second one, there was a bit of hunting around and working out the chronology…

Jo: Is that Uncle Chad? In the graveyard? Crow? Crow? Crow? Crow?

Rik: Yes.

Jo: I still struggled with piecing together the overarching narrative.

Rik: Well, I thought, this will be someone else trying to kill Ethan, and then getting duffed up themselves.

Jo: Had you found the family photo at this point? The one with ‘Mum is mad, Chad is bad’ etc written on the back?

Rik: Yes, again, I didn’t quite work out what it meant. But was working on the assumption that each family member will die one by one, until Ethan is the only one left.

Jo: I was trying to figure out the relevance of the photo during this murder, as if it might have been some sort of clue.

Rik: It’s more context for the end, isn’t it? How he sees each family member? I think you’re supposed to have background on the family through the stories and different bits of paper you find. The Dad and Grandfather are the only ones to help him…

Jo: Yeah, I sort of got that at the end. But I wasn’t sure if Dad was going to go mad at one point.

Rik: Well he does stick some scissors in his neck. But that’s to stop him doing something worse I guess, or being killed by his own son [older brother Travis].

Jo: So, most of the family are possessed by the ‘Sleeper’…

Rik: And some are trying to fight it off. It’s quite Stephen King.

Jo: They blame Ethan for awakening it, and they want to kill him?

Rik: I think he has to be a sacrifice to the Sleeper. But the ones who go after him first are the ones who have a difficult relationship with him anyway. Even the mother, it’s hinted that she never wanted Ethan, in the story about the woman regaining her beauty by getting rid of her child…

Jo: Yes.

Rik: Although I did manage to miss her murder entirely.

Jo: In the mine?

Rik: Yep. I guess I just didn’t like being down in the mines. I missed the whole bit where you can raise that other lift out of the water. Then I went down into the tomb and got scared shitless by the zombie miner down there, then ran off.

Jo: Oh, for sure, the mine bit took me a fair while to do, because, again, I was so sure I was missed something. It actually took me an overly long time to find the entrance to the mine.

Rik: And because Paul Prospero then says something about an evil there that wanted him to leave, I thought, oh how clever, they mean you actually shouldn’t be poking around in that bit. I actually wrote that down, out of a false sense of relief perhaps. Then I got to the very end and realised I’d missed a whole murder and had to go back.

Jo: I mean, that bit with the zombie miner, you could bypass I suppose, because there’s the option to go through the bubbling water and come out of the mine.

Rik: Well, you have to see all the stories to get the end scene I think. But I really did not want to go back into the zombie bit again. It combines jump scares, mazes and stealth…

Jo: So, could you potentially get to the end, see the map of Ethan’s stories and discover actually, you’ve missed some and need to go back?

Rik: Yes, but I think that might be something that changed in the Redux version.

Jo: That reminds me, there was a major glitch in the portal house. Once you piece the house together and explored all the rooms, you’re supposed to find the hidden room, but I spent about 40 minutes just wandering around the house, because the trigger point just kind of failed. Eventually looked it up, discovered it was a bug, and had to exit and start that bit again.

Rik: I don’t think I had any bugs. But the retracing your steps at the end was annoying. You can warp to any of the bits you missed, but then from there you have to leg it around the world on foot again. Again, I think they changed this in the updated remastered version.

Jo: How did you do that? Warp about? I just went everywhere on foot.

Rik: So in my version, at the end you see the mural with all the stories on, and you don’t get the ending.

Jo: Oh, so if you’ve missed bits you can zap over from there?

Rik: But only to that one. You then have to walk to the others. But back to that blummin’ mine…

Jo: I just felt like it wasn’t really in keeping with the rest of the game somehow.

Rik: And the puzzle at the end of it all was another 90s-style symbols thing. I never want to play another adventure with a symbol-based puzzle, in an ancient tomb, ever again.

Jo: Again, I think that’s oddly reminiscent of the Sierra games, in particular.

Rik: The worst bits of old adventures, brought to life again!

Jo: I guess everything about the Ethan Carter world was quite creepy, and already being in the mine was pretty eerie. I just don’t think it needed a zombie miner scaring the shit out of you, when you’ve just been gently strolling around the world for the last three hours.


Ethan’s Stories

Rik: Zombies seemed a step too far. Although is any of it actually real in the end?

Jo: Well, there again is something that I found a bit confusing. There was no real lead up to the bits that were part of Ethan’s stories, so, to me, they just seemed to blend in with the rest of the action, until the end when you’re like ‘oh it was another of Ethan’s stories’.

This guy…

Rik: I think I preferred it that it was all a story, rather than finding out what the Sleeper was. Ultimately it’s about the family, not something mysterious that needs to be defeated.

Jo: Everything was kind of gearing towards the fact that this strange creature had been awoken. I didn’t realise that the story about the Sleeper was fiction until the very end.

Rik: But maybe the Sleeper was real? It made the Vandergriffs unhappy, and the Carters unhappy. Even if they didn’t actually end up hacking each other to bits, it made bad things happen in Red Creek?

Jo: I think it just didn’t quite come together for me. I just couldn’t quite piece all the narrative threads together. And it being just another of Ethan’s stories was a bit of a, ‘and then we woke up and it was all a dream’ type ending. Except the family really are quite horrible…

Rik: I think it is better than ‘we woke up and it was all a dream’. I had a bit of a tear in my eye at the ending. And I was surprised.

Jo: Yeah me too. The ending genuinely made me sad, and I wasn’t expecting it to go in that direction.

Rik: The camera panning through the panicking family desperately trying to save him from the fire…

Jo: Knowing that he had to escape into his stories to get away from his family, and Paul Prospero was his hero who came to rescue him in the end was what got me. I think it’s just that there’s something about the overall story that just didn’t quite come together for me, but I don’t know whether it’s because I didn’t play it in a straight run.

Rik: I think it could benefit from a second playthrough. But there are some bits that I don’t want to do again.

Jo: I think a clear go at it in a single day would be better than just doing an hour here and there as I had done.

Rik: I would agree with you that the background on the family isn’t as clear as in, say, Gone Home. And so the human part of the story needs some digging. Especially when you’re expecting it to be a ‘magic ghost makes people go crazy’ tale.

Jo: I think I just wanted to know more.

Rik: But I think it is maybe there if you go back to it? There are some pretty detailed discussions and alternative theories out there. And the developers did want some ambiguity in the ending (link: http://www.theastronauts.com/2014/10/vanishing-ethan-carters-ending-extreme-spoilers/).

Jo: I guess I still have a lot of questions really. Because what was it that caused the Vandergriffs rift? And what was it that killed the Grandma?

Rik: A fire. That Gramps caused? Or was it actually Chad? Were they making moonshine? Do they keep making moonshine in different places, hence all the fires?

Jo: I mean, it’s fair to say that fire is a big problem in the Ethan Carter world.

Rik: So, did you like it overall?

Jo: I don’t really have any strong feelings about it either way, honestly. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t really love it either.

Rik: I’d definitely put it below the other indies we’ve discussed. I think if it hadn’t been for the zombie bit, I might have gone into it again.

Jo: There were parts of it I really liked, but overall I think I just wanted more out of the story. I might play through it again someday. I think the murder solving bits were the strongest parts of the game.

Rik: I agree, but I think they do get a bit easier as you go along. The idea sort of fizzles out a bit.

Jo: The other puzzles are a bit ‘meh’, but there are only really two – the portal house, and the zombie maze.

Rik: I thought the game was stronger for the ending.

Jo: I feel like I’ve been really heartless about the ending, but I do agree. I think if a big monster just launched out of that room at the end I would have been more disappointed.

Rik: Or if it ended with Grandad murdering Ethan to appease the monster.

Jo: Yeah. I think honestly I’m just quite old fashioned, in that I quite like things to be tied up at the end of the story. But I suppose Gone Home and Her Story aren’t neatly tied up at the end either.

Rik: Well, I enjoyed going through it, and the discussion. I guess it’s your turn to nominate the next game!

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is available on Steam and GOG for around £15.